Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tour of California - Stage 5 "Predictions"

If you took note of the time stamp on this post you know the only reason this is a prediction is because I'm depriving myself of watching the race until I get this post done. Life does get in the way of fun from time to time. I HATE it when that happens! :D

Today's race course is flat as a pancake. It is also not very scenic, so expect lots of helicopter shots of the gorgeous, snow-capped Sierra Mountains in the background until the very worn down coastal range near Pasa Robles offers some relief from what are the very northern edges of a huge salt marsh just to the south of today's route - the last remnants of the lake that the San Joaquin Valley once was.

When riding the flats, power and speed are king, regardless of body weight. If you ride with clubs like the Stockton Wheelmen they have some big powerful riders that are over 250 lbs. These are 6'+ big hunks of men who would get dropped in mountain stages like yesterday's, but can plow through mile after mile of flats, staring down brutal headwinds (not a factor in today's ride) and pull long lines of smaller riders behind them. The name that comes to mind here is Tom Boonen, and maybe, Popovych for Astana, who is normally a role-player.

After Mancebo's sacrifice to drop back into the Peleton to avoid having his teammates run down by Team Astana and the Levi-Lance machine - who are doing a brilliant job of absolutely dictating the behavior of the Peleton - he will be demanding to be let loose on the world today, and I sure can't blame him. I have to say, as a spectator, Mancebo has done more to make this Tour interesting than any other rider - by FAR. He also appears to have energized and even improved the entire Rock Racing Team. The guy has the most awesome "no guts, no glory", "double or nothing", "damned the torpedoes, full speed ahead" attitude we've seen an a long time. The audacity of hope meets tenacity and strength.

I have to think Floyd Landis will be going for broke about now too. As I sat quietly composing this post in my head, my beloved Jimi Hendrix rendition of "All Along The Watchtower" was floating through some dusty corner of my mind - though I think Dave Mason's version was the most beautiful. The passage "two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl" and "the hour is getting late" were ringing with special fervor. Today is Stage 5. The race will be more than half over at the end of the day. For guys who had hopes of doing well that have been dashed, today is a day they should stare themselves down in the mirror and risk it all. Time is no more for these guys.

Mark Cavendish is another name that comes to mind. His win yesterday was redemption he obviously wanted badly. I have to think his team got a thorough dressing down after the debacle at the end of Stage 3, and they've responded beautifully, though Hincapie was noticeable by his absence at the celebrations at the finish line yesterday. I think Cavendish will not want to settle for that, but looked to me to be energized by his win yesterday. Whether as an individual contributor, or as a role-player getting Cavendish into position today, George Hincapie could well be looking for some redemption of his own after being shunned by Cavendish at the finish-line yesterday. If Hincapie goes early with a breakaway group, and Cavendish joins late in the race, these two themes will flow together.

Special kudo's btw to Cavendish for being a good sport and donning the cowboy hat during the closing ceremony. Those people worked very hard to put on a great finish, fighting tight city budgets I'm sure, so Levi, take a cue from Mark and learn to be a better emissary for the sport. Mark's boyish grin and good-natured play to the crowd was immediately endearing - in stark contrast to his ruthless race persona - as is often the case with true champions.

So where does this leave us? I think a large group of very talented riders will be attacking viciously early, and as that breakaway group begins to stay out there and become a threat, it will grow as other riders will risk bridging up to them until most of the strong riders will be in the front. Where will Lance and Levi be? I think, despite my focus on individual riders above, the real story SHOULD be Team Astana putting on a real display of power and mastery today, and firmly taking control of the race. They were not pushed very hard yesterday, and should be pretty well rested today relative to the other strong teams in the Tour. It would be a strategic blunder for Astana not to take control today.

My prediction is that Astana, at some point, perhaps on the shallow climb up the Coastal Range, will bridge up into the strong breakaway group after setting a ferocious pace for the Peleton to keep the time gap low, gather themselves in the breakaway group, and then put on a display of power by breaking out as an intact team to decisively take over the race. Columbia Highroad and Team Cervelo' will likely contest vigorously, but I don't think they have the guns to stay with Astana. Expect Popovych to play a key role today for Astana.

Will any of this play out? Who knows? As they say, that's why they run races - to find out. Enjoy the race. Time for me to hit the road myself.

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